SPY WARS The Mideast - How the West was wrong
Washington — The spy war at its purest involves the difficult art of predicting events. And in no place are predictions more difficult than in one key region of the world -- the Mideast.
The downfall of the Shah of Iran caught most of the analysts and estimators -- the thinking spies -- by surprise. Iran hit the thinking man's spy world like a storm, leaving once- comfortable assumptions strewn about like uprooted trees.
For the United States, it meant an intelligence failure not only for the Central Intelligence Agency but more importantly for the entire Washington foreign policy establishment, from the president down. It is clear that the united States has a national intelligence problem on its hands, partly because of an inability to look beyond the individual leaders with whom it is allied to what is happening among the populations they rule.
But by all accounts, none of the major intelligence agencies or nations of the West did particularly well when it came to predictions on Iran. In June 1978 the Israeli Ambassador in Tehran, Uri Lubrani, warned that the Shah's days appeared to be numbered. But when the US asked for a more considered assessment , based on all of Israel's sources of information and analysis, the Israeli government grew cautious. Why wasn't the ambassador listened to? Mainly because no one wanted to hear more bad news about the Shah.
In August 1978 the CIA's senior analyst on Iran asked the US Embassy in Tehran, as he had done a number of times before, for more information on popular attitudes in Iran. According to a House intelligence subcommittee report, however, neither the CIA nor the embassy political section in the Iranian capital was very responsive. The subcommittee report said that the critical weakness in intelligence gathering in Iran was a lack of widespread contact with Iranians of various persuasions -- leaders and followers alike.
But even if the American embassy had wanted to be more responsive to the CIA analyst's request, it is not clear what it could have done. Few people in the Tehran embassy had the background or language skills to assess popular attitudes.
Broad contact with the Iranians (including Iranian dissidents) was apparently ruled out for the more basic reason that it might offend the Shah. The House subcommittee report said that the CIA, in its attempts to report on the situation, was caught in a conflict of interests: "One the one hand, the CIA had historically considered itself the Shah's boosters. One the other hand, it was supposed to provide sound intelligence analysis of the Iranian political situation."
The small Israeli mission in Tehran had more Farsi-language speakers than its big Us counterpart. But few people seemed to be listening to Ambassador Lubrani.
Back in Washington, even after the departure of the Shah on Jan. 16, 1979, there was still a tendeency to want only the good news. The good news was that the US-supported iranian Army was going to hold together. The White House had dispatched to Tehran Gen. Robert Huyser, deputy commander of the US forces in Europe, with the mission of helping to maintain the unity of the armed forces while helping to transfer their loyalty from the departing Shah to the new regime of Shahpour Baktiar.
US Ambassador Williams H. Sullivan warned this would not work and that the Bakhtiar regime would not hold. But General Huyser seemed to think it would work, and the White House again chose to listen to good news rather than bad.
"We thought Bakhtiar had some chance if we could get the Army behind him," said one participant at the Washington end of the line. "Huyser was there to get the Army ready to move if Bakhtiar gave the order to bash heads.
"When Bakhtiar said, 'I'm going to give the order,' we said, 'Go to it'. . . . Within 24 hours, there was no Iranian Army left. Exactly what Sullivan had said would happen had happened."
This was a White House Intelligence failure that had nothing to do with the CIA. As one source close to the action put it, "Huyser was given a lot of credibility, because he was saying there was still something left to work with. Thaths what we wanted to hear.
"Sullivan was not the villain, but because he reported bad news, we considered him a virtual traitor. If anything, the culprit was our policy. There was just a lot of drift."
The House subcommittee report on the situation showed that when it came to the CIA, the agency was short on information and background. (There were no reports based on contacts with the Iranian religious opposition during all of 1976 and most of 1977, for example. No Farsi-speaking operatives in the field.)
But perhaps equally significant, the report showed that the intelligence system as a whole discouraged analysts from challenging conventional wisdom. Assessments that cut across the grain of administration policy tended to be played down. Intelligence analysts now are trying to remedy this deficiency by holding regular meeting to address least- likelym predictions.
Was there anything special about Israel's Ambassador Lubrani and his approach? The answer from sources in Tel Avid is no. As soon as he took up his post in Tehran, the ambassador begin learning Farsi in order to give himself a better feel for the local situation.
But what seems most important, according to a former Israeli intelligence officer, was the fact that the Israeli ambassador was not so deeply tied to the Shah as were the Americans. The ex-intelligence man added that the ambassador was by nature "the worrying type."
But even the Israeli ambassador's predictions came late in the day. Earlier warning than this whould have been necessary if the US was either to build bridges to the Iranian opposition or give more effective support to the Shah.
Ambassador Sullivan was apprently not far behind Lubrani is sensing the direction Iran was heading. The US Embassy did make contact with the Iranian revolutionaries, religious leaders, and the people of the bazaar. But Sullivan argues in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that when the US state Department finally advanced the view that the Shah's regime would not survive, there were many others in Washington, particularly on the National Security Council staff, who attributed State's perception, and by indirection that of the embassy, to an expression of wishful thinking by people whose vision was blurred by a zeal for human rights.
Ambassador Sullivan admits that he cannot be sure that his attempt to build bridges to the opposition in Iran would have produced a less chaotic and negative outcome for the US. But he feels he was constantly undercut by President Carter's National Securiy Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and thus was never able to give his approach an adequate try.
According to a former senior CIA anlyst, there were other ptoblems both in the field and at the Washington end of the line. Speaking not only about Iran but also about other nations, the analyst said that American analytical intelligence work has been oriented too much toward quick analysis of day-to-day events. Many executive branch "consumers" of intelligence want their papers on most subjects to be so concise as to be meaningless, he said.
A former CIA station chied added this note: "Washington tends to want quick results. They like lots of little reports. They almost take 'body counts' of the number of reports." Another former chief of station said there is little time for reflective, long-range analysis. "With the CIA, it's produce or perish ," he said.
The former CIA man indicated the writer of intelligence reports who is quick and glib is thus more highly valued than one who is knowledgeable.
He added that CIA men in the field were often so busy watching Soviet activities that they had little time for reflection or collecting information on other subjects. Everyone dreamed of recruiting a Russian and then placing him as the CIA's man in the Kremlin.
The former analyst recommended that the intelligence system be made to go in more for reflective analysis and that greater attention be given to basic social and political forces in the developing countries being reported on. He felt that while much lip service was paid to the need for analysis, the budget for intelligence indicated that it was still not being give high enough priority.
William Colby, a former CIA director, stated in a forum at the end of last year that "it will always be difficult to get Congress to vote very substantial sums for large numbers of academic researchers in the intelligence community . . . . It is not as glamorous as the foreign operations or the fancy technology."
But will foreign operations or fancy technology help provide good analysis and predictions on a key country like Saudi Arabia?
The former senior CIA analyst doubts it.
"Iran was an easy target compared with Saudi Arabia," he said. "Saidu Arabia is hard to know . . . . It's almost a closed society." Saudi Arabia kicks sand in CIA yes
Saudi Arabia has been angry with the CIA.
How has the US intelligence agency managed to offend the nation that controls so much of America's oil?
First of all, some of the CIA's analysts appeared to grow nervous about the stability of Saudi Arabia following the fall of the Shah of Iran, and some began to predict that the same fate could befall the Saudi sheikhs, even within a year. When word reached Riyadh that the CIA men were not only saying such things but also leaking their view to a few newsmen, it infuriated the Saudi leadership.
Then the CIA's station chief in Riyadh offended the Saudis. According to one version of what happened, the Arabic-speaking CIA man was probing too deeply into the status of the Shiite population in Saudi Arabaihs Eastern Province. Other reports said the Saudis had been most upset over queries the station chief had made about the Saudi royal family. Word had reached them by way of an article in the Washington Post that the CIA was reporting Crown Prince Fahd's authority on the wane. The CIA station chied was declared persona non grata and forced to leave the country.
The deputy director of the CIA, Frank C. Carlucci, was reported at one point to have made a trip to Saudi Arabia to try to make amends. But for a number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the CIA, the Saudis have been highly critical of the United States. It has not been easy to millify them.
On May 3, of this year, Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's minister of industry and electricity, made a public speech in which he departed from the usual Saudi rules of decorum and delivered an umprecedented blast at just about everyone having to do with the preparation of intelligence in the American foreign policy establishment.
"The fate of the Saudi regime in the final analysis," said Dr. Algosaibi in a speech to the National Association of Arab Americans, "depends on the feelings of the nomads of the empty quarter, the fishermen of the Red Sea, the farmers of Qasim, the businessmen of Al Khubar.
"It does not depend on the predictions of journalists acquiring omniscience through five-minute chats and one-day visits or the pronouncement of third-rate bureaucrats reading fourth-rate reports prepared by fifth-rate spies."
The Saudis later let it be known that that statement had been cleared at the highest levels in in Riyadh prior to its delivery in Washington D.C.
Just in case the Americans failed to understand Dr. Algodaibi's message, the Saudis also cooperated in the preparation of an authoritative article in the current eidtion of the American magazine Armed Forces Journal. The article stated that although the US is deeply enmeshed in defense measures to protect Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have come to the ironic conclusion that the United States itself is the most serious threat to Saudi Arabia's stability.
The nine-page article written by a "former State Department official," contends that the Americans' "constant discussion of every indicator of internal instability in Saudi Arabia" has been acting to persuade more and more nations that the Saudis are both "in trouble and vulnerable."
The article adds that for all its rhetoric, the real signal from the US seems to be that it may not react if Saudi Arabia is threatened. This impression is compounded by a broad perception that the US, in part because of legal and administrative constraints, lacks the intelligence and CIA capabilities even to deal with minor threats.
Meanwhile, some Us officials have accused CIA analysts of overreacting to signs of instability in Saudi Arabia. These officials said they think the CIA analysts felt themselves "burned" by Iran and now are playing it safe by predicting disaster in various parts of the world. They note that CIA analysts produced a report about a year ago that gave King Hassan II of Morocco only six more months in power.
In fairness, however, the same officials credited the CIA with having been accurate in some of its predictions. They said the CIA was on target, for instance, when it came to China's invasion of Vietnam and the military buildup for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But they added the CIA was less than prescient in some cases that involved the intentions rather than capabilities of the Soviet Union and other adversaries. Through technological means, the CIA accurately reported the Soviet buildup along the Afghan border. But according to some accounts, the agency failed to predict that the Soviets would then go all the way and invade.
In Saudi Arabia, understanding a complex and secretive society may prove to be more important for the intelligence agencies than anything they can gather through radio monitoring or satellite photos. The KGB collects in the casbah
Thow good are the Soviets at the business of gathering intelligence and making predictions?
A recent defector from the KGB said he often twisted his reporting a bit so it would find acceptance among ideologically oriented officials in Moscow.
But some American officials think that the defector may have exaggerated the "distortion factor" in Soviet intelligence reporting, perhaps wanting to say things that would please the side he had just joined. One American official who had seen some of the confidential Tass reports that go to top Soviet government officials found those reports to be "relatively objective."
What seems clear is that the KGB has trained a greater number of intelligence officers than the CIA has in the culture and languages of the Middles East and that the KGB men are more willing and able than most of their CIA counterparts to mingle with the people of the Middle East bazaars.
"The Russians in Iran and elsewhere have contacts with a wider range of people than we have," said a former CIA man of the Soviets' operations in the Mideast.
"They've got case officers who can talk to the bazaaris and sit through innumerable cups of tea," said the ex-CIA man. "And I think they've had much more success than we've had in buying people.
"It's probably because they feel more comfortable bribing people," he continued."Even when we're carrying on a clandestine relationship, we like to feel we're not buying or bribing.
"Can you imagine the reaction in the States to the first Jack Anderson column that reports that the agency set out to bribe religious leaders in Iran? You'd have half the Congress in an uproar."
"Can you imagine the reaction in the States the first Jack Anderson column that reports that the agency set out to bribe religious leaders in Iran? You'd have half the Congress in an uproar."
On the negative side, said the same intelligence man, the Soviets are "under pressure to produce" -- and "sometimes make the most blatant and obvious attempts to recruit" foreigh agents.
"But, he said, "if you don't make any calls, you don't make any sales."
As angelo Codevilla of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence points out in a paper on the subject, the KGB worries less about analysis that the Americans do and more about getting hold of documents in the vaults of foreign governments. The KGB leaves much of the analysis to the government and party leadership. The missing airfields
For all its spy gadgetry, the United States sometimes overlookes a few things.
In that most strategic of countries, SAudi Araibia, the Americans failed recently to take note of three potentially important airfields. As part of normal contingency planning, the Pentagon had compiled a new list of airfields on the Arabian peninsula in order to move quickly and efficiently in the event of trouble.
The Pentagon then asked civilian contractors responsible for the planned CX transport plane to see which of the airfields would be best able in an emergency to accommodate troop and equipment-filled transport planes.
A corporate vice-president with some knowledge of the area questioned the Pentagon list. Common sense told him the Pentagon had missed some airfields that were adequate for emergency use.
A Boeing team that had recently done a report on airfields for the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) was consulted. In the team's report were 10 airfields, located at regular intervals along the oil pipeline -- three of them airfields the Pentagon, and presumably the CIA, with all its gadgetry, had missed. It was also discovered that the Pentagon had understimated the capabilities of some of the fields.